At the tender age of five, our hero is sent to boarding school from the South African farm where he lives with his grandpa because his mom has a nervous breakdown. Gee, thanks Mom. While he's there, the other boys torture him for being English (they're Afrikaners). South Africa was colonized by two warring groups: the English and the Dutch, and their descendants haven't quite gotten over the bad blood at this point—even the kids learn to dislike each other. As a result of the bullying, the poor guy develops a bed-wetting problem.
The ringleader of the bullies is a kid called the Judge who has a swastika tattoo on his arm and promises to turn Peekay over to Hitler when he makes it to South Africa. This kid sounds like a real charmer. He also kills Peekay's pet chicken, which scars him for life (really).
On a train home, Peekay meets Hoppie Groenewald, a boxer who teaches Peekay that little can beat big, and Peekay decides he will become the welterweight champion of the world. Even though he doesn't know how to box. Hey, a kid can dream.
When he gets to the town where his family now lives, Peekay's mother has sent his nanny away for being a heathen (she's become a born-again Christian). Peekay's pretty mad about that, but luckily he meets a German music professor called Doc, who teaches him about nature and piano. Doc gets thrown in jail for being an unregistered alien (not the kind from space, though that would be an awesome plot twist), and Peekay goes to visit him every day for piano lessons. He also starts boxing with the prison team. His coach, Geel Piet, is a long-time prisoner who is half-white, half-black, and recognizes Peekay's potential.
Over time Peekay, Doc, and Geel Piet build up a black market where they bring in tobacco, salt, and sugar to the prison, and also have a letter-writing service, which is highly illegal, and makes Peekay famous among the African prisoners. They nickname him the Tadpole Angel. An evil guard, Lieutenant Borman, kills Geel Piet when he finds him carrying letters, but luckily Geel Piet didn't tell on Peekay for bringing them in.
Doc finally gets out of jail, and Peekay gets a scholarship to a fancy boarding school in the city. While he's there he starts training with a professional boxing coach, and he also learns how to make money by running gambling scams with his new best friend, Morrie. It seems like for Peekay, crime actually does pay—but don't go getting any ideas now.
While he's training, Peekay gets roped into a fight against a black boxer, Gideon Mandoma, who turns out to be Nanny's son. The people want to know if the Tadpole Angel is their leader, and when he beats Gideon after a hard fight, he confirms that he is.
Peekay tries for a scholarship to go to Oxford University, but he doesn't get it, which is the first loss he's had in many, many years. So he decides to go work in the copper mines to make a ton of money for college. He takes a really dangerous job and makes tons and tons of money, but one day he gets into an awful accident. After he's recovered, another miner that he's never seen before attacks him. It turns out to be the Judge, the mean bully who killed his chicken at school. He's still got it out for Peekay? Sheesh, this dude needs to move on.
Peekay fights the Judge, who is still big and mean but is no match for Peekay's amazing boxing skills. He takes him down, and then he carves his initials and a Union Jack flag over the swastika. He feels like a new man after taking revenge. And with that violent and bloody triumph, the story ends.
The Power of One is one of those books that I really should have read years ago. I've certainly meant to read it for a long time so this was a satisfying title to cross off my list. It's stunning that this was Bryce Courtenay's first novel. I look forward to reading his others because if this is where he started, he's a talented writer.
The Power of One is set in South Africa, starting shortly before World War Two, and following approximately fifteen years in the life of our narrator, Peekay. At the age of six, Peekay decides that his life's ambition is to become the welterweight champion of the world (that's in boxing) and the rest of the novel follows him as he works to realize this dream. Peekay is a young English boy (a rooinek, as the Afrikaaners call him) living in a racially diverse and tense society. The book encouraged me to learn more about the Boer War and the history of South Africa. Much of what I know about South Africa comes from Nelson Mandela's autobiography so it was interesting to hear some of the history from a fictional and English perspective. (Courtenay grew up in South Africa, by the way.) I'd be very curious to read something from the Afrikaaner perspective or from a different African perspective.
The book is well written with strong details. The physical landscape is beautifully described. I learned about boxing, cacti, and boarding schools. It's a thick book but I read it easily over a long weekend; once I began the novel I wanted to finish it right away. At the end I was left to ponder Courtenay's handling of the racial issues surrounding Peekay. My initial reaction was that Peekay didn't do enough, wasn't kind enough. That his lack of action made him a bad person. I wanted more from him in his treatment of the Africans around him. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Peekay was likely pretty progressive for South Africa in the 50s. The fault therefore lies with the culture this character was raised in, one where the African people were automatically thought of as second class, to be compared to intelligent animals. Even the kindest of characters seem to treat the Africans around them as one might a favourite pet dog. From my North American, 21st perspective, that's not good enough (and I stand by that in the real world), but in the novel's world, those tiny differences say a lot about its characters. In fact, it seems to highlight the sadness of injustice and racism, that even the small kindnesses that some of the characters offer – kindnesses that, to me, don't even seem that kind – make them stand out in a society of prejudice and apartheid.
My major fault against The Power of One was the character of Peekay. Although immensely likeable, Courtenay writes him as a sort of superman, a boy good at everything. At some point in the novel I realized that everything is just sort of working out for Peekay and from there on, a lot of the tension vanished. In short, he was too perfect. The book lost touch with realism on a number of points. Not everybody turns out to be talented at what they decide to be at the age of six. That's why I'm not an astronaut. Sure, there are people who are as talented in as many facets as Peekay seems to be, but the majority of us are not. A character with real flaws is easier to sympathize with and to celebrate with when he does win out. The ending as well did not offer me the redemption it seemed to want to provide for its main character. For a relatively long book, it felt like it ended too quickly.
In the end though, I would recommend the novel as a snapshot of history, of South Africa, of youth and maturity.